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'Herbie' Fueled by Danica Craze

"Herbie: Fully Loaded," (search) the Disney movie starring Lindsay Lohan (search) as a young woman who wants to be a race car driver, comes out Wednesday at a fortuitous time: as 2005 Indy 500 Rookie of the Year Danica Patrick (search) has just made history for being the first woman to lead in that race.

Is it a coincidence? Yes. But perhaps without meaning to, the movie -- the latest "Herbie" remake -- calls attention to the issue of women in motor sports.

In "Herbie," Lohan's character, Maggie Peyton, is the third-generation daughter of a NASCAR (search) family. But she is forbidden from pursuing her dream of racing by her overprotective widower father (Michael Keaton), who doesn't want to lose her in a tragic crash.

Yet, her brother -- who doesn't have the talent that Maggie does -- gets to race.

"Hollywood Reporter" film critic Kirk Honeycutt said the movie doesn't make too much out of the fact that Maggie's a woman, but the dad issue is a little sexist.

"Her racing is accepted by her boyfriend and her opponent. But obviously the fact that her dad won't let her drive is a minor sexist edge -- they say in the movie it's because she looks like her mother and he doesn't want to lose her [mother] again. Her brother is allowed to race ... it rears its head there," he said.

But the dad's concerns are nothing compared to Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone's (search) comment last weekend about Patrick's Indy 500 finish.

"She did a good job, didn't she? Super. Didn't think she'd be able to make it like that," Ecclestone told a gathering of reporters. "You know, I've got one of these wonderful ideas that women should be all dressed in white like all the other domestic appliances."

NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston said comments like these are really unfounded.

While Patrick's petite size -- 5' 2" and 100 pounds -- is mentioned in nearly every article about her, Poston says racing is a rare sport where size doesn't matter.

"Drivers are all sizes and shapes -- it really runs the gamut," he said. "Race car drivers -- man or woman -- have the heart of a competitor, the amount of courage to pass in tight squeeze better and faster than the competition.

"The skill is the driving ability -- to have the eye-hand coordination, to understand how to drive in traffic, anticipate turns," he continued.

And unlike in other sports, men and women are not separated in motor sports.

"Women are competing successfully against men with a lot more experience," Poston said.

Twenty-three-year-old Patrick was the only woman in the 33-car Indianapolis 500 this year. She was the fourth female to earn a spot in the race, and at a qualifying speed of 227.004 fourth fastest, earned the top starting position by a woman in the race’s history.

She also became the first woman to lead at Indy, getting out front three separate times for a total of 19 laps. She finished fourth, the best-ever finish by a woman at Indy.

But her performance was not just good "for a woman." The run was also one of the greatest by a rookie in 89 years of Indy history, as Patrick herself pointed out.

"I made a helluva point for anybody," she told the Associated Press.

The best previous finish by a woman at Indy was ninth by Janet Guthrie (search) in 1978.

Patrick also followed Lyn St. James and Sarah Fisher (search) (who's now with NASCAR, racing in the Grand National Division) to Indy -- but no one caused the sensation that Patrick has: the ABC broadcast of Patrick's Indy 500 race last month drew a 6.6 overnight rating and a 17 share, up 40 percent from last year and the highest since 1997.

Even rival NASCAR concedes that Patrick mania is good for motor sports in general.

"More women being interested, more people of all backgrounds in motor sports is good for everyone. Growing the pool of competitors makes it more competitve, more exciting -- there's more fans," Poston said.

And NASCAR has its own crop of female up-and-comers. Poston pointed to Fisher, Erin Crocker, Allison Duncan (who's competing in the NASCAR Dodge weekly series, is tied for track lead in points and won her first race last week), Terri Williams (who races in the NASCAR Dodge Weekly Series), Kim Crosby (of the the NASCAR Busch series) and Deborah Renshaw and Kelly Sutton (of the NASCAR craftsmen truck series).

While Poston admits that none of them have competed on as large a stage as Patrick, "the point is they are definitely out there," he said.

"The future is very bright. NASCAR has a drive for diversity initiative that is focused at the grassroots -- we're trying to develop drivers early."

The effort, in part, is meant to get women to have a more consistent presence in motor sports, rather than coming and going as they have over the years.

But just as some people still balk at the notion of sending women off to war, some -- like Maggie's dad in "Herbie" -- balk at the notion of a sending a woman off in a speeding race car.

"It still is race car driving -- there is an element of danger without question," Poston said.

As for "Herbie," the G-rated movie, which is targeted mainly at kids and Lohan's tween fans, didn't shy away from making the most of the Danica buzz.

Patrick had the "Herbie: Fully Loaded" logo on her car at the IRL IndyCar Series races at Texas Motor Speedway on June 11. She will also sport the logo at Richmond International Raceway on Saturday, as part of a partnership between Patrick's team, Rahal Letterman Racing (search), and Walt Disney Pictures.

Patrick also attended last Sunday's world premiere of "Herbie: Fully Loaded" in Los Angeles, as did NASCAR drivers Duncan and Fisher.

And as these drivers got to experience a taste of life on the red carpet, Lohan herself seemed to enjoy the experience of playing a race car driver, going along for test drives at 220 miles per hour.

"It was scary, but it's a complete thrill. And it's a huge adrenaline rush being in that car going that fast. It's fun," she told FOX News.

Hollywood Reporter review of 'Herbie: Fully Loaded'

ReelViews (James Berardinelli) review of 'Herbie: Fully Loaded'